San Pablo City, Laguna, the Philippines

August 29, 2011

There was more to the Seven Lakes of San Pablo City than met the eye. Who would think that this city of bustling commerce and idyllic inns sat on a volcanic field? The Philippines had been called the Pearl of the Orient, but this Pearl adorned the Ring of Fire. Much of its picturesque topography had been molded by volcanic activity. It was easy to forget that fact, especially in this part of Laguna. After all, it had been more than 700 years since the last eruption of the San Pablo Volcanic Field. Its craters, also known as maars, had since filled with water and were now disguised as placid lakes.

Granny and Grandson at Lake Sampaloc, Laguna

I had only gotten wind of these crater lakes when my mom read an article about them in the papers a few months before. For me, the province of Laguna was known only for Laguna de Bay, the largest in the country and not one of the seven lakes. Mom’s discovery was the perfect excuse for the entire family to go on a road trip. But considering how late in the day we set off, we abandoned visiting all seven lakes at the get-go. Alas, we only got to see one, the largest and youngest – Sampaloc Lake.

Mom @ Sampaloc Lake, one of the Seven Lakes in San Pablo City
Sampaloc (Tamarind) Tree by Sampaloc Lake

Legend had it that the lake was formerly an orchard, presumably of tamarind trees (sampaloc in Tagalog), owned by a woman whose selfishness denied an old man’s request for some fruit. The old man cursed the land, causing its collapse and subsequent inundation. The tale must have been the way ancient people made sense of seeing the formation of the lake some 700 years ago. Life went on in another form: Tamarind gave way to tilapia, a freshwater fish that abounded in the lake. A tilapia monument was erected in 2005 to commemorate half a century of tilapia culture in Sampaloc Lake.

Something Fishy: Sibs Hamming it up by the Tilapia Monument
TTT Loves Tilapia

A viewing deck high above lake level and a boardwalk by the shore seemed to be recent developments, providing panoramic views of the lake. But a marker told us there was more to the story of the lake than its volcanic origin and the folk tale that romanticized it. Curiously, rather than the usual historical facts, the marker contained a lamentation. It partly read:

To the sons and daughters of San Pablo:

Yesterday, after years of absence, I visited Sampaloc Lake. I sat on a step of its ancient stairs, And, I wept.

Its legend is dead. Buried in memories of old men and old women. Its once clear water, rich in myth, afraid, to peek from under water lilies. Its once green banks, lush with bushes and bamboo and other God-grown foliage, defiled by sleazy bars and hovels and huts.

Where are the crickets? Where are the fireflies?

Long, I sat and wept.

Family Photo at the Viewing Deck of Sampaloc Lake
Boardwalk by Sampaloc Lake

Water that had collected in the crater turning it into a lake attracted bad elements. The lake had been choked for decades by the unbridled construction of fish pens and effluent pollution by informal settlers and commercial establishments that lived off its waters. Selfishness had once again doomed the area to destruction. Concerned citizens of the city, however, stepped up to protect the lakes and restore their natural beauty. We still saw a few pieces of plastic trash floating on the water; square patterns of fish pens still made the lake surface look stitched up. It was reassuring, though, that rehabilitation was underway.

Maars were formed by steam-powered eruption upon contact of red-hot lava and groundwater. The Seven Lakes of San Pablo, all interconnected underground, were created in such a way in this volcanic field, now listed by PHIVOLCS (Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology) as inactive. Today, the integrity of the lakes could be preserved by the passion for environmental protection and an appreciation of their cool and calm waters. I hoped the efforts to save the lakes would not run out of steam.

Sampalok Lake @ San Pablo City